“A Million Miles Away” is an inspiring biopic about real-life astronaut José Hernández. Showcasing the obstacles Hernandez overcame to go into space, the film examines the societal barriers that Mexican-Americans face in everyday life without being too preachy or heavy-handed. Although it uses some tropes to make its points, the movie’s central themes are well-handled and make for an entertaining and thoughtful experience.
Since the film is based on the biography of a real person, I will not go through what is essentially a linear chronology of José Hernández’s life in describing the plot. The structure of the film begins with a young José going to schools when he can fit them in while engaging in migrant farm work with his family. Then it proceeds to a middle period where José graduates from college, gets married and begins a family, and starts a job as an engineer at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. The third act involves his being accepted as an astronaut candidate after being rejected multiple times, training to become an astronaut and finally getting to go into space on a shuttle.
The movie divides itself into segments based on 5 instructions for achieving one’s personal dream given to José by his father. They emphasize hard work and perseverance. On the one hand, they seem to oversimplify the task ahead of Jose in becoming an astronaut. But it also seems to me that the filmmakers wanted to provide a framework that young people watching this movie could use to achieve their aspirations in real life. I admit that I find this to be an admirable use of cinema.
The easy interchange between using English and Spanish as the primary language is another highlight of this picture. The Spanish-language segments are subtitled. Considering how some people are averse to watching a film with subtitles, I found this move to be daring. It is nice, though, to have a movie that mirrors how language is used in everyday life.
Migrant workers are portrayed as hard-working. As José says later at a press conference: “we are the people who pick the food that ends up on your plates” (I am paraphrasing here.) Even when Jose and his future wife Adela both have other jobs, they still go into the fields still to help their relatives.
On the other hand, we also see the difficulties faced by the young migrant workers who try to go to school as well as they can. Given how their families move from place to place, they are in and out of the educational system. The film gives the impression that most teachers in migrant areas recognize this reality and compensate for it. But often the migrant students are simply exhausted when they get to school, sometimes after already having worked in the fields.
Against this background, there is the trope of the caring teacher who makes a difference for a student. There is one special teacher who cares enough about José to go to speak with his family. She insists that he and his brothers and sisters need to stay in one place to get a proper education. In the picture, the parents heed this advice and so the seeds for Jose to succeed are planted.
As tropes go, this is a good one for those of us who in our own lives had teachers that were influential in our further development. This is a full-circle trope in that the teacher shows up at his space launch to cheer him on after all of the intervening years. I felt that its use in this movie was a bit over the top but still could not but help being happy that it turned out that way.
Other societal barriers that Jose has to overcome involve workplace challenges. On his first day, a secretary assumes that he is the new janitor. His work colleagues initially give him menial chores, such as photo-copying. I could never quite be sure if this was simply because he was new or if it was because he was of Mexican heritage.
Often the resolution of these incidents involved humor and a lighter touch. In this way, the script avoided going into a more heavy-handed, predictable preachy mode. José is portrayed as a practical problem solver and a team player.
In a biopic, one can never be sure how much license has been taken with the truth. A point in case is the one problem that only José sees the answer to that elevates him in the eyes of his boss and co-workers. Did it really happen in the way in which it is portrayed or at all? It seemed to be a little too convenient in that life rarely happens that way.
I liked the inclusion of so many Hispanic cultural elements, from a wedding ceremony to food to music. These added a valuable sense of authenticity to the story.
The credits reveal that many of the creative team, including the director Alejandra Marquez Abela, were Latino. I am certain that diversity behind the screen helped ensure an accurate portrayal of this story.
The two leads, José (Michael Peña) and Adela (Rosa Salazar), are the only two developed characters in the film. Peña and Salazar are superb in their roles, especially in portraying a couple that does not always see eye-to-eye. Their performances are completely believable.
There are many side characters, but none of them are fully fleshed out. It would have been interesting to see more of the interaction between the astronauts in training.
All in all, despite the use of tropes, this is a solid, well-made biopic. I will admit to tearing up in one scene. Recommended for the entire family, even with off-screen deaths.
Three and a half out of 5 stars
A MILLION MILES AWAY launches globally on PRIME VIDEO Friday, September 15, 2023
Inspired by the real-life story of NASA flight engineer José Hernández, A Million Miles Away follows him and his devoted family of proud migrant farm worker on a decades-long journey, from a rural village in Michoacán, Mexico, to the fields of the San Joaquin Valley, to more than 200 miles above the Earth in the International Space Station. With the unwavering support of his hard-working parents, relatives, and teachers, José’s unrelenting drive & determination culminates in the opportunity to achieve his seemingly impossible goal. Acclaimed writer and director Alejandra Márquez Abella has created a dazzling tribute to the loyalty and tenacity of the entire Hernández family, as well as anyone who dares to dream.
Starring Michael Peña, Rosa Salazar, Bobby Soto, Sarayu Blue, Veronica Falcón, Julio César Cedillo, Garret Dillahunt and Eric Johnson
Directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella
Screenplay by Bettina Gilois, Hernán Jiménez, Alejandra Márquez Abella
"A Million Miles Away": an inspiring biopic about overcoming societal barriers
The movie divides itself into segments based on 5 instructions for achieving one’s personal dream given to Jose by his father. They emphasize hard work and perseverance. On the one hand, they seem to oversimplify the task ahead of Jose in becoming an astronaut. But it also seems to me that the filmmakers wanted to provide a framework that young people watching this movie could use to achieve their aspirations in real life. I admit that I find this to be an admirable use of cinema.